Is The Case Of India’s Mysteriously Dying Nuclear Scientists Finally Closed?

Is The Case Of India’s Mysteriously Dying Nuclear Scientists Finally Closed?

[Editor’s Note—This story was originally published on September 5th, 2014. It set our radars off once again on the 5th of January, 2015 thanks to news of a PIL that was filed in the Bombay High Court by activist Chetan Kothari, seeking directions for the formation of a special investigating team to probe the numerous and mysterious deaths of Nuclear Scientists. Kothari has made Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval, Director of Intelligence Bureau Syed Asif Ibrahim, Director of Research and Analysis Wing Rajinder Khanna and Director of Central Bureau of Investigation Anil Kumar Sinha as respondents to the PIL. In support, we felt the need to dig this article out from our archives.

Stories like this never lose relevance until there is some kind of resolve. In case you missed it, or let it get murky in your memory, re-acquaint yourself with the extremely suspicious details of the so-called ‘suicides’ and deaths of many of India’s nuclear scientists. These men deserved were thought leaders of our country and deserved the protection of our government. It would be utterly disrespectful to let their untimely deaths go unquestioned. Read more on the petition here and scroll down for our analysis on the seemingly conspiratorial cases.]

It’s hard to decide what is more disturbing: the way the Indian nuclear scientific community has been racked with a spate of alleged ‘suicides’, unresolved causes of death and murmurs of sabotage in the last decade, or how worryingly underreported it has gone, in the mainstream Indian media. The unnatural deaths in Iran’s nuclear programme received much international media coverage while Indian media coughed up only occasional reportage on circumstances surrounding the series of unnatural deaths of such scientists.

Given that nuclear energy – whether we like it or not – is quickly emerging as an unavoidable alternative energy option, not to mention the advancing Japan-India nuclear deal after the Modi-Abe summit, this isn’t a topic we can avoid talking about anymore.

Homegrown decided to delve a little deeper into the issue, speaking to one of the only Indian journalists, Professor Madhav Nalapat, who has given the issue the kind of attention it merits.

“Indian nuclear scientists have always been under the radar. We can trace this back to Homi Babha, and his death in the crash of Air India Flight 101 at Mont Blanc.”– Prof. Madhav Nalapat

Dr Homi Jehanghir Bhabha, ‘father of the Indian nuclear program’ and founding director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, was on his way to Vienna on Air India 101, when it crashed near Mt. Blanc in the Swiss Alps on January 24, 1966. Conspiracy theories abound that this was CIA’s strategy to paralyse India’s nuclear programme, still at a very nascent stage. Interestingly, this was only shortly after Dr Bhabha’s first announcement that India would be ready to produce its own first nuclear device in 1964. The loss of the visionary, who was a staunch supporter of the peaceful usage of nuclear energy, was a great blow to the country. Flash forward to the present.

“There has been talk about billions and millions,” Prime Minister Modi told India Today. “But there has never been talk of trillions.”

Modi has indeed made history with Japan’s mammoth investment of 3.5 trillion Yen (INR 2,10,000 crore), as promised to India through public and private funding over the next five years. A landmark for more reasons than one, one of the key agendas discussed was a nuclear pact between the two countries. Negotiations for the pact have advanced during the summit, but we suppose its consummation will have to wait until the next one.

As we approach a turning point for the country’s nuclear programme, however, it’s become more vital than ever to clear out some of the proverbial skeletons that seem to be lying around in our closet.

“Investigate unnatural deaths of Indian scientists working on nuclear program and increase security to all research staff and families.”

Thus states Ashish Channawar’s petition on, which received its first signature about 10 months ago, and has since been signed by only 173 people, clearly reflecting the lack of attention the issue has received. Addressed to those formerly holding important political offices, including Narendra Modi, then BJP PM nominee, it alludes to the series of questionable fates that have befallen at least nine scientists and engineers at BARC, as well as at the Kaiga nuclear facility, in a span of just three years.

This recurring trait of mysterious deaths left its latest imprint on two high-ranking engineers - KK Josh (34) and Abhish Shivam (33) - who were working on INS Arihant, India’s first nuclear-powered submarine. In October 2013, their bodies were found on railway tracks at Penduruthy, but as they were pulled off before a train passed, authorities realized that they had been dead before being left there. Reported by the Ministry of Defence as a routine accident, no further investigation ensued.
Another case that had the police struggling to come to a conclusion was that of BARC engineer M. Padmanabhan Iyer, found dead under suspicious circumstances at his residence. Eventually, the case was closed in 2012.

According to the landmark Sunday Guardian report that came out in October, 2013, ‘forensics experts say that in all such unexplained deaths of scientists and engineers involved in the nuclear program, fingerprints are absent, as also other tell-tale clues that would assist the police in identifying the culprit. These indicate a high degree of professionalism behind the murders, such as can be found in top-flight intelligence agencies of the type that have been so successful in killing Iranian scientists and engineers active in that country’s nuclear program.’

And this theme is a recurring one. In the aftermath of the killings of two scientists in the Mallapur district of Karnataka (Lokanathan Mahalingham, working at the Kaiga installation, and Ravi Mule, also an employee of Nuclear Power Corporation), police ‘failed to make any headway’ yet again. An NPCIL union leader point-blankly told TOI, “Some powerful hands are behind both the cases and government should hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).”

So the crux of the issue is —Will the Modi government provide security to this community and even if they want to, do they have the means to do so?

Professor Madhav Nalapat had opinions to share regarding both. He believes that there has been a marked change since his last report, ‘PMO unconcerned about scientist deaths’ came out, and finds Modi’s ‘India-first’ policy, when it comes to foreign affairs, both pragmatic and reassuring.

Currently holding the UNESCO Peace Chair and the Director of Geopolitics and International Relations Department at Manipal University, he is one of the only journalists in the country who’s questioned the ominous implications of the parallels that have emerged, so it’s likely he has his ear to the ground.

“Since the publishing of the Sunday Guardian article, there have been no more such cases,” he told Homegrown. “Those behind these questionable occurrences have clearly gotten wind of the fact that people are starting to pay attention to the mysterious circumstances surrounding the scientists’ deaths.”

He has several wider concerns regarding our security issues. “The Indian government cannot conceive of the possibility of hostile Western countries and their intelligence agencies being involved but I have always found the circumstances surrounding the deaths of these Indian nuclear scientists highly questionable,” he says. “There’s a blind spot when it comes to India’s security challenges, as we are focusing on a very narrow spectrum. India has a very Pakistan-centric and China-centric approach to security matters.”

Referring to the major implications of Edward Snowden’s disclosure of classified NSA information, Nalapat says, “We’ve had business intelligence being compromised severely in the past due to cyber-interception of emails and chats. This information was leaked to competitors in the US, giving them an automatic leg-up.”

India being one of the 33 agreements with ‘third party’ agreement, the NSA can access its telecom and internet network, with the United States choosing what information they share with the Indian government, about India. Looking to the future, Nalapat believes that India should not focus solely on any one country, but continue diplomatic relations with Japan, the United States and the Arab countries by way of nuclear energy co-operation.

“It’s important that we balance the deal we strike so that we’re not giving more than we’re receiving, as was the case with the 2008 US deal.” 

So where are we now?

Technically, we remain in uncharted territory, with an enduring need for constant vigilance.

There is no way of knowing whether the spate of deaths in the nuclear scientific community has abated for good but it is important to question the security matter of those who have access to some of the most sensitive nuclear information in the country. Especially keeping in mind nuclear energy’s potential for mass destruction.
“A recent trend that I’ve noticed,” Nalapat tells us on a closing note, sending us spiralling back into the vortex of conspiracy theory behind the scientists’ deaths.“Is that there is an increasing number of scientists that are now being hired by American and European countries. Indian nuclear scientists are thus relocating instead of staying back here in India. It seems that instead of being killed, these scientists are now being hired.”

It’s unlikely we will ever know the complete truth about the unresolved scientists’ deaths. But as far as the future is concerned, perhaps this new government can ensure transparency and provide the nuclear scientific community the security they have always deserved.

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